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Executive makes bond-rating trip bipartisan affair by inviting Ecker; Some question inclusion of predecessor by Robey in New York delegation


Republicans and Democrats may be at each other's throats in Washington, but 30 miles north in Howard County, it's a love fest.

James N. Robey, the new Democratic county executive, has invited his Republican predecessor, Charles I. Ecker, on a trip to New York today to help preserve the county's AAA bond rating.

"Local government is too important to be partisan," Ecker said. Asked about partisanship in national government, he said: "That's an embarrassment."

Robey said he cares more about how much it costs Howard County to borrow money than he does about political appearances.

"I'm not worried about politics," said Robey, a police chief under Ecker. "I'm going to do the best I can for Howard County. I'm affiliated with my party, certainly, but this transcends partisan politics."

The idea, according to Robey, is to demonstrate to the three bond-rating houses that determine the cost of borrowing that a few people in Howard County's leadership may have changed but that financially, nothing has changed.

"They're looking for stability in Howard," Robey said.

Howard is one of 24 counties nationally with the coveted AAA bond rating from all three houses -- Moody's, Fitch's and Standard & Poor Equity Group. The county earned its first AAA rating in 1990, the second in 1996 and the third last year.

Ecker said he was delighted at Robey's invitation.

"Normally, the day after election you say 'Chuck who?' " Ecker said of the usual plight of ex-officials.

It was the two-term Republican's 1990 upset victory over incumbent Democrat Elizabeth Bobo that led the way for big Republican gains in Howard County four years later and control of the County Council. But the GOP lost lost that edge in November. Robey won, and three Democrats were elected to the five-member council in a wave partly attributed to voters' dismay with Republicans over the presidential impeachment process.

County Democrats insist they have no political objections to Robey's move, but some have questioned it.

"It raises the question of who's in charge," said council President C. Vernon Gray, a 16-year Democratic official who is going on the trip.

"I'm not criticizing Robey. I don't object. I'm just a little surprised," he said.

He called the idea that Ecker would help show continuity in county governance "hogwash."

"Obviously, they want assurances from somebody who has the authority to make decisions -- the whole financial fiscal management team," said Gray.

He also pointed out that the county's first AAA rating came under Bobo, a Democrat.

Of Gray's worry about who is in charge, Robey said there's no doubt and he feels confident.

"All I'm trying to do is look out for the taxpayers," he said.

Former executive Bobo said "I don't see how it would hurt" to take Ecker on the New York trip.

Others going on the two-day trip are the county administrative officer, the directors of budget and finance, the county auditor and an outside fiscal expert.

Freshman Councilman Guy Guzzone, a Democrat, had no objection to Ecker making the trip.

"If anything, it shows that he's [Robey] big enough of a man to know when he can find help in other people," Guzzone said.

Republicans were delighted by Ecker's inclusion.

"It's nice to see people from both parties working together in Howard County," said Howard state Sen. Martin G. Madden, minority leader in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

"There are a lot of people who wouldn't have done that," freshman Republican Councilman Allan H. Kittleman said of Robey's decision. "I thought it was a great idea. Chuck Ecker's been there eight times. They know him, and they trust him."

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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